Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Sunday, February 21, 2021

SPA-Gate is over, or is it?

Charlestown Council decides on “no action” on sketchy land deal

By Will Collette

For the past several months, we’ve been following “SPA-Gate,” a land deal where one of the ruling Charlestown Citizens Alliance’s (CCA) allies, the Sachem Passage Association (SPA) offered to sell a small patch of land on Foster Cove to the town for $426,000.

The CCA Party, a conservative political action committee funded mostly by non-residents, has held control of Charlestown since 2000. Today, they still hold a 3-2 majority on the Town Council.

Aside from the optics of yet another insider pay-to-play deal, the land value was grossly over-estimated, the mechanics of actually doing the deal were murky and the question of whether the town actually needs to buy this property were never answered.

Added to that, SPA-Gate revealed the extraordinary measures town administrator Mark Stankiewicz, under CCA direction, would go to in order to hide the deal from public scrutiny.

The property is around 4 acres and leads off Route 1 North down Oyster Drive to a small beach on Foster Cove. The lot is bounded by two Town-owned open space parcels as well as the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. 

The lot itself is unbuildable for a number of reasons, but mainly because it consists almost entirely of wetlands. Whether Charlestown bought the land or not, the property was and is going to remain in its natural state.

One reader had another name for this shady deal, calling it “Oyster-Gate” because the land is basically the length of Oyster Drive. Geez, I wish I had thought of that – Oyster-Gate is so much better title than SPA-Gate.

The property belongs to the Sachem Passage Association and approximately 100 households in the Sachem Passage neighborhood have a deeded right of access to use the property, though apparently few of them actually use it.

So Ron Areglado, a SPA officer, approached the town on April 24, 2020 with an offer to sell and an appraisal attached to their proposal that pegged the value of the land at $426,000. Except that the appraiser set that value based on what he (the appraiser) called the “extraordinary assumption” that the lot was buildable, which it is not.

Town Planner Jane Weidman prepared a grant proposal to DEM, presumably under the direction of Planning Commissar Ruth Platner – I say “presumably” because Platner controls these deals though she rarely leaves a paper trail and does not use her official Town e-mail account for Town business.

The DEM funding was important as it would provide state funding for up to 50% of the land value.

Before sending in the application, Weidman asked Town Tax Assessor Ken Swain to explain how the town came up with its tax assessment of only $61,900. On June 1, Swain responded by clearly detailing why the land was only worth $61,900 and nowhere near $426,000 figure in the SPA appraisal.

However, three days later on June 4, Weidman apparently decided – or more likely, was told – to disregard Swain and submit the grant application to DEM using the imaginary $426,000 number on the appraisal submitted by SPA.

On July 30, DEM approved the grant to Charlestown for $213,000 – at the maximum rate of 50% of the land value – but required a new, independent appraisal.

Getting that new appraisal took a while but finally it came in and was put into the public record as part of the Town Council’s agenda for its January 11, 2021 meeting.

The independent appraisal for Oyster Drive property was $75,000 based on the correct assumption the lot is unbuildable. Since DEM will only fund a maximum of 50% of the true appraisal, the state share available for the deal fell from $213,000 to $37,500. Further, as Ruth Platner herself admits, DEM "will not be involved in the sale if they believe the price is greater than the market value."

On January 11, the Town Council directed Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz to talk to the SPA to find out if this new valuation changed their proposal to sell the property. Here is the illuminating e-mail Stankiewicz sent to Ron Areglado as it was provided to me under the state open records law.Here is Areglado's reply to Stankiewicz as revealed under the APRA:

Gotta love "open and transparent" government!

Stankiewicz reported back at the February 8 Council meeting that the SPA leaders were not interested in negotiating a sale at around that price.

The CCA-sponsored Council members seemed interested in keeping the deal alive and asked whether DEM approved the original $426,000 bogus appraisal. Stankiewicz said “yes.”

That was not actually true: Stankiewicz left out the important catch that DEM would not fund the deal based on the bogus appraisal but instead would pay no more than 50% of the $75,000 figure given in the independent appraisal. 

No big payday for the SPA folks is possible unless all of the money comes out of Charlestown taxpayers’ pockets.

At this point, the CCA Council members, as well as Stankiewicz, seemed eager to drop the whole thing without the Council adopting any official position such as rejecting the deal and notifying DEM we would not need the funding. Instead, they pushed for simply having the minutes reflect the Council took “no action” on SPA-Gate.

My conspiracist mind leads me to wonder if they plan to huddle with Ruth Platner and SPA leader Ron Areglado back at the CCA’s secret clubhouse to see if they can find a work-around to revive the deal.

Several readers have likened the SPA-Gate (aka Oyster-Gate) deal to the 2012 “Y-Gate” scandal. That was another insider pay-to-play land deal that shared many of SPA=Gate’s characteristics: backroom deals, political favoritism, secrecy, a bogus appraisal, DEM funding, etc. The CCA had its ass handed to it when a public outcry stomped the deal flat.

One similarity between Y-Gate and SPA-Gate concerns me. The indecisive way the Council left the matter could allow the deal to re-surface. The Y-Gate deal was resurrected several times before it was finally killed. Saying “no action” to SPA-Gate leaves the proverbial gate open for this walking dead deal to totter back into the scene.

Other unresolved issues.

For example, there’s this section in the Rhode Island General Laws:

§ 11-18-1 Giving false document to agent, employee, or public official. – (a) No person shall knowingly give to any agent, employee, servant in public or private employ, or public official any receipt, account, or other document in respect of which the principal, master, or employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official is interested, which contains any statement which is false or erroneous, or defective in any important particular, and which, to his or her knowledge, is intended to mislead the principal, master, employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official.

(b) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned, with or without hard labor, for a term not exceeding one year or be fined not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000).

Consider this statute and whether it applies to two actions by SPA-Gate principals. The first is the April 24, 2020 offer to sell by Ron Areglado on behalf of SPA that used the $426,000 appraisal that was clearly, to use the language of the statute, false or erroneous, or defective in any important particular” and "intended to deceive."

The second and perhaps more egregious act happened on June 4, 2020 when Town Planner Jane Weidman submitted a grant proposal to DEM based on the bogus appraisal.

This is made worse by the fact that she asked Ken Swain for the reasoning behind the town’s $61,900 tax assessor and he gave it to her three days before she sent in the grant application.

This indicates Weidman, in addition to submitting a false document, intended to mislead the principal, master, employer, or state, city, or town of which he or she is an official.”

At the February 8 Council meeting, there was no decision or instruction given to let DEM know Charlestown doesn't need the $213,000 DEM has earmarked for Charlestown so they could re-direct it to some other worthy project. That might also mitigate Charlestown’s exposure under RIGL § 11-18-1.

The fight for full disclosure

Throughout this whole Oyster-Gate mishegoss, I sparred with Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz over the release of records to shed light on what was happening. Stankiewicz had directed our town clerk to refuse release of any record the state open records law allowed the town to withhold. Over 100 records were either denied in toto or almost totally blacked out.

The most common types of records the town withholds are communications, especially e-mails, that were written by, sent to or even just cc’d to an “elected official.” Then you get the document almost entirely blacked out like the two samples above.

It’s a quirk in the law and Charlestown exploits it to fullest. All you have to do to make a document private is slap an elected official’s name (e.g.  Ruth Platner) in the “c.c.” line.

I especially wanted these records so I could track who was driving this deal and making the decisions. In particular, I want to know why Jane Weidman submitted the $426,000 DEM grant application after she was told by Tax Assessor Ken Swain the property was only worth $61,900.

Charlestown does have the legal right to withhold such records, but as the chief of the Attorney General’s open government unit Kathy Sadeck told me that just because a document CAN be withheld doesn’t mean it MUST be withheld or even SHOULD be withheld especially in instances where public corruption may be involved.

In Rhode Island, public corruption is first investigated by the State Police and then prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Unit. The loophole in the public records law that Town Administrator Mark Stankiewicz used to withhold over 100 documents does not shield these records from their investigations. Or from a grand jury.

Video vagaries

Back in 2014, when Mark Stankiewicz was still talking to me, he told me the town was shopping for new software to replace the obsolete Clerkbase system the town had been using to allow citizens to gain  remote access to town meetings and records.

He said he was interested in IQM2 and asked me to check it out. I ran a corporate background check and then audited the system which was then being used by several nearby municipalities. It checked out and the town switched to IQM2 in 2015.

Unfortunately, Charlestown’s deployment of IQM2 is not nearly as good as what I saw in the other towns’ websites as I reported in this 2015 article after it was first deployed. It has gotten worse ever since.

The first and maybe biggest problem is simply finding it.

It’s not on the town’s front page. The table for “Virtual Meetings” takes you to Webex, the software the town uses to allow you into LIVE virtual meetings.

It’s not under the “Government” tag either at “Agendas and Minutes” or “Meeting/Event Calendar.”

I used the site map and the search engine and finally found the IQM2 hereYou must then click on Media and then pick your poison from among the meetings that have been put up on the menu. There are dozens of them arranged alphabetically by town department and then chronologically. The font size is very small so you will probably need to increase the magnification.

Click on the meeting you want and then a new window opens up with a split screen that allows you to see the whole agenda or a document you want to examine as well as watch the video.

While watching a meeting, you will probably want to zero in on a particular topic and will try, as I did, to click on the link in the agenda for that topic. Except it won’t take you to that discussion. You have to either watch the whole video or try to find the right place by skipping around. 

Meetings are not posted on IQM2 for a while. The Feb. 8 Council meeting was not available to watch until almost a week later.

It’s a pain in the butt and frankly not nearly as good as the sites I audited back in 2014 when I gave my recommendation to Stankiewicz. After almost 7 years, it’s gotten worse when you would expect advancing technology to make it better.

Charlestown needs to fix this perhaps starting with a clearly identified link on the Front Page and at least a little guidance for how to use it. I know that runs against the town’s – meaning the CCA’s - natural inclination to give the public as little information as possible, but, hey, this is your chance to prove me wrong.

Sit luceat.